Or if you grew up in an African or Caribbean home, your mum kept a stash underneath the kitchen sink for quick runs to the shop. You are probably also eating lots of it. Countries in Africa are racing to ban it; US states and cities are vying to catch up. If the human experience in the 20th and 21st centuries could be captured in the addictive, constructive and destructive properties of a single material, that would probably be plastic. Nothing else quite captures the paradox of modernity, where humans are every day pushing the bounds of imagination and creativity, while condemning the environment towards increasingly inevitable collapse. Plastics lift us up from oblivion and simultaneously knock us down to the abyss.
A recent study by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight than fish. The carcasses of a startling range of marine animals – from humpback whales to seagulls and turtles – are showing up on the world’s beaches having choked on the stuff. But we continue to manufacture plastic at alarming rates because humans are hooked on it. Sixty per cent of clothes produced in the world are made from synthetic fibres derived from plastics. Plastic bottles are the preferred method for dispensing drinks. In fact, figures published in 2017 showed that 1m plastic bottles are bought per minute globally. It is predicted that in 2020 an estimated half a trillion plastic bottles will be sold.
But the same characteristics that make plastic so useful, such as durability or cheapness, also make it toxic to the natural environment. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), for instance, from which many plastic bottles are made, takes at least 400 years to decompose. The vast majority of those bottles will end up in landfill or in the ocean. In fact, at least 91 per cent of the plastic in the world will not be recycled and, by 2050, at least 12bn tonnes of landfill waste will be plastics. Small pieces of plastic fibre that leech from clothes when washed will eventually end up in the stomachs of the fish we eat. This yin and yang of utility and toxicity underpins the conversation around what to do about this menace.
Just outside Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo, in a one-room workshop framed by high ceilings and exposed brick walls, a small team of self-proclaimed tinkerers and builders is working with a group of local youths to suggest a possible way forward. Polyfloss is a hybrid art, design and social enterprise, begun in the Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) programme at London’s Royal College of Art as a final-year showcase project for this rag-tag group. In 2012, Christophe Machet, Emile De Visscher, Audrey Gaulard and Nick Paget hit upon the idea of turning used polypropylene into a new material malleable enough to serve both industrial and aesthetic purposes. “Everyone was doing furniture, products or objects,” says Machet. “But we got super interested in recycling.”
Building on this idea, the group decided to go beyond simply modifying existing plastic materials. “We didn’t want to do something that was general and good for everyone,” says Paget. “We just wanted to be subtle.” So they tinkered and toyed until they stumbled on what seemed like a crazy idea – what if they could make candyfloss from melted plastic?
They called the resulting material “polyfloss”, a creative, versatile fibre that looks and feels a little like wool. So far, the Polyfloss team know that it can be spun into fibres and woven into ropes and threads, or melted and mixed to give the appearance of marble. Somewhere in a home in Devon, Polyfloss has already been stuffed between interior and exterior walls as insulation and, in Milan, the team used it to build furniture. Polyfloss is soft and flexible but can also be compounded into something firm and durable.
The idea of working with plastic as opposed to other materials reflects the ethos of Polyfloss as an initiative and as a company. The project addresses a global problem beginning on the team’s doorstep. “We visited a number of local recycling initiatives,” says Paget. “We saw that [they] were getting a lot of waste from the local council and building new stuff from the waste.” The Remakery in Brixton, London, where the team did a lot of research, said that it simply did not have the capacity to deal with plastic. “Textiles, wood and metal are easy,” Paget recalls, “but they didn’t know what to do with plastic.”
“If there’s a rare electronic part you need, you’ll find it at this market,” says Carine Ratovonarivo, the Polyfloss project’s coordinator in Antananarivo, escorting me through La Réunion Kely market in the city. We are walking alongside a putrid canal, choking with plastic bottles, and through rows of rinsed-out PET bottles and glass medicine containers to learn more about Madagascar’s unique place in the global plastics cycle. Ratovonarivo is an artist and a designer who is often inspired by neat clusters of discarded syringes, tubes and medicine bottles, washed in the filthy waters of the nearby canal. “The whole market is like a big curation project,” Ratovonarivo says. “Every person sorts out their trash by categories before they clean it and display it. It inspires me to create and curate as well”.
Despite the grimy appearance, there is an order or method here that is not only typical of the market, but of the spirit of Madagascar’s wider artisanal approach. Outsiders may only see chaos, but those who come to know the island find something curious, resilient and oddly efficient lurking underneath.
The same goes for Madagascar’s plastic paradox, which begins with the complexities of global recycling. The country’s plastic issues originate in the West, which consumes the vast majority of this material. As the quality of municipal water diminishes in cities around the world, residents turn to bottled water to fill the gap, which accounts for much of the world’s plastic waste. But the increasing use of plastic straws and plastic food packaging is also part of the problem. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, 3.7m tonnes of plastic was consumed in the UK in 2014. In 2017, the London Assembly environment committee published a report which showed that while London consumes more plastic bottled water than anywhere else in England – 7.7bn bottles a year – it has the worst recycling rate in the country (32 per cent compared to the national average of 43 per cent).
Most Westerners, however, don’t realise that the bulk of the plastic they dutifully toss into the recycling bin isn’t processed domestically. With the exception of Scandinavian countries, Western nations mainly outsource their plastic problem to countries such as China or Malaysia. About two thirds of the plastic waste that is generated in the UK – or 2.7m tonnes – is sent overseas for recycling, primarily to China. In 2016, China imported 7.3m tonnes of plastic waste from countries such as the UK, US, Canada and Japan. When countries are unable to reuse this imported waste, it is added to landfill or ends up in the ocean.
Destination countries like China use plastics as fuel in large factories or as the basis for new industrial materials, but the efficiency of this system depends greatly on Western nations investing in sorting facilities at home. “Almost all the plastic we say is recycled is actually post-industrial waste because it’s easy to know where it comes from and what’s in it,” says Gaulard. “Post-consumer plastic is much harder to distinguish and to properly recycle because it could quite literally be from anything.”
Sorting plastics properly is a major part of making recycling possible. In 2018, however, China tightened its rules on importing plastic to reduce the amount of waste it will receive moving forward. Chinese landfills were increasingly overwhelmed with low- grade plastics that the nation’s industries could not absorb, and which were instead choking rivers and damaging the environment. Since then, countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia have stepped in to breach the gap, but it has hithero proven too wide. Meanwhile, a lack of accountability in Western nations has made matters worse. In May 2019, Malaysia’s environment minister Yeo Bee Yin demanded that Australia take back up to 100 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste, which had been falsely declared as recyclable.
This is where Madagascar comes in. The real heroes in the global recycling system are not the large industries that siphon up tonnes of pre-sorted plastic waste, but rather the millions of people around the world – such as 38-year-old Angeline Razafinzahary, also known as Zeline – who do the actual sorting that makes recycling possible. Madagascar has a large class of poor people willing to do this unglamorous but vital work of sorting through waste by hand. It’s a system that makes sourcing used plastics from the island nation more attractive, and sourcing from the West’s unsorted mishmash correspondingly less so. Today, China buys a significant amount of plastic from Madagascar because Razafinzahary and her colleagues dig through domestic and industrial waste – often barehanded – to create the neat categories that companies need. It’s a difficult, dirty job, but Razafinzahary is unfazed. “I am proud of my work,” she says, speaking in her small two-room home close to the heart of Antananarivo. “I am not a thief and I am not a beggar. I am completely independent and this is better than a lot of other work that I could be doing.”
Because of people like Razafinzahary, Madagascar occupies an interesting place in the global political economy. Here, a single-use PET bottle discarded by a middle-class family can easily get new life as a container for kerosene or cooking oil, or else be cut in half to hold combs, pens or cutlery. Partly as a result of this domestic plastic cycle, Madagascar produces the least amount of municipal waste in the world, at only 9kg per person per year. Much of the waste produced ends up being traded at La Réunion Kely market.
This is a part of the explanation as to why Madagascar is an ideal location for Polyfloss. Thousands of kilometres away from Paris and in partnership with the Paris-based Rubis Mécénat foundation, Polyfloss has evolved into an ambitious attempt to use design to address the plastic menace. For years, Razafinzahary’s customers were mainly the resellers at this market, named for the nearby French island colony, but she also sells to intermediaries that she knows sell to Chinese importers. “I used to set up a stall at La Réunion Kely but now I don’t need to,” she says. “The moment I open my guni [large sack] I am surrounded by people who want to buy the plastic.” Today, one of these buyers is Polyfloss, which has entered into a verbal agreement to buy used plastic from Razafinzahary at preferential prices. Twice a week, she delivers a guni filled with white plastic medicine bottles – the raw material for Polyfloss’ work in Antananarivo.
In 2018, the Polyfloss team linked up with Rubis Mécénat under the Ndao Hanavao (“Let’s Innovate”) project, which is represented in Madagascar by a group of local volunteers and Vitogaz, the largest supplier of LPG gas cylinders in the country. Perhaps because of its relative distance from other countries, Madagascar still has an impressive concentration of artisans producing high-quality products. Beyond simply making the plastic floss, the project is training 10 young Malagasy to produce, use and therefore effectively market Polyfloss as a raw material for these makers. “We want the Malagasy trainees to develop their own small businesses based on the wool,” says Juliette Le Bihan, an associate at the Rubis Mécénat Foundation. For the foundation, the Ndao Hanavao project is a departure from its traditional work of making art possible in challenging contexts. Here, it has challenged itself to create a social project and art intervention that could transform Madagascar.
In addition to undergoing training around Polyfloss and its processes, the young volunteers also go through some form of personal transformation, receiving French classes, entrepreneurship and life-coaching sessions free of charge for the duration of the project, which is currently open-ended. Most of the participants are aware of the plastics problem in Madagascar, but now feel – for the first time – like they are in a position to do something about it. “There is lots of plastic where I live,” says 18-year old Sandra, who lives close to La Réunion Kely. “There is so much trash in the canal and it makes me sad. But now I feel like I can change that somehow, even a little.”
This is the kind of sustainable thinking that Ndao Hanavao is building around the Polyfloss machine. Benjamin Loyauté, who brought the project to Rubis Mécénat, is an artist and curator interested in moving beyond Western tropes surrounding recycling. “There are real problems with plastics, so I proposed a project that goes beyond recycling,” he explains. By the time Loyauté conceived of the idea of doing more with plastic waste than a sterile recycling initiative, he had already spent time in Madagascar and exhibited the work of the Polyfloss team as part of his Hypervital exhibition during the 2015 Saint-Étienne Design Biennale. “There is so much garbage in Madagascar and people don’t have the tools to create things,” he says. “So we wanted to work with young people and this new material to create a cadre of designers.”
Surrounded by barges of PET bottles floating in stagnating canal water and in the context of the global plastic bottle problem, it can be difficult to understand why, out of all the plastics possible, the Polyfloss team chose to work with polypropylene – there are more durable plastics that are easier to reuse, if not recycle. “We didn’t want to disrupt the existing streams of refuse,” offers De Visscher.
“We are not looking to disrupt and destroy,” adds Gaulard. “We wanted to pay attention to things that people ordinarily don’t reuse or recycle.”
By selecting polypropylene, the team are targeting broken plastic basins or chairs, or empty medicine containers that are too small to hold anything useful. Although the team has not ruled out working with PET in the future, polypropylene lends itself better to the Polyfloss process. “It’s very flexible and not at all brittle, unlike PET which cracks quite easily,” says Gaulard as she shows me around the Polyfloss machines. The fundamental idea is quite simple. Waste plastic is melted and put through a small filter mounted on a spinning rotor. It is then extracted as microfibres – like candyfloss – which can be aggregated into what resembles a cluster of wool. The simplicity of the process, however, masks the complicated period of trial and error that preceded it. “We started out in our dorm rooms at IDE melting plastic in microwaves and saucepans,” says De Visscher. “Eventually, we got kicked out because the smell was too much for the other students.” But the team kept on experimenting and iterating, renting a studio from the nearby Imperial College where they finally perfected the basics of the machine.
When spun into fibres, polypropylene behaves more like wool than fibreglass, which is important for the idea of using it as a craft material, rather than an industrial one. So far, the team has tried five different processing methods, with weaving, fleecing and moulding emerging as the most exciting for the Malagasy team. On the day that I visit the factory, they are turning clumps of Polyfloss into ropes that are subsequently woven into baskets, as well as melted in a mould to turn the plastic into a new shape. The machine is still not producing major quantities, but the team isn’t worried. “I have spent so many hours watching this machine,” explains Gaulard. “Sometimes we are just playing with the parameters, trying to see how to make it work better”.
In the Antananarivo factory, there are two whirring Polyfloss machines that represent iterations seven and eight of the contraption, named “Inferno” and “Raffaele” respectively. Raffaele, the smaller but faster of the two, produces about 250g of floss from 350g of plastic every 30 minutes. “You have to be patient,” says Gaulard. “It’s not an exact science yet.” But what is produced is already yielding interesting results. Significantly, the Polyfloss team decided to rebuild their machine in Antananarivo using, as far as possible, only locally available materials. “We needed to link what we were doing to the materials available onsite so that if something breaks we can replace it,” says Paget. “So we built the machine from scratch in Antananarivo because the hardware was really hard to find.” This led them back to the very markets from which their plastic waste would be bought – bike chains, plastic basins and other knick-knacks were tinkered and toyed with until the Madagascar machines were built.
It was a time-consuming process, particularly as the members of the Polyfloss team were still based in Europe and working their day jobs. They squeezed this exploration into two research trips funded in part by Rubis Mécénat. “We went into markets where they dismantle pieces of cars and other materials, so it was a lot of trial and error,” Paget explains. “We ended up building a machine that was very different from the one we had in France because we were adapting to the local context. It needed a lot of start and stop – everything was a bit like testing and trying.” But they believe that this process will be more successful in the long run, particularly as the Malagasy team has been at their side throughout – they know where to go and what to do if or when the machine breaks.
This captures the modest ambitions of the Polyfloss team, who see Ndao Hanavao less as an opportunity to upend the contemporary recycling market, and more as a chance to introduce a new way of thinking about plastic waste in urban contexts. “What is the raw material of cities?” Paget asks. “It’s waste. That’s what you can get the most easily. So, we considered waste as the resource of cities”.
In Antananarivo there is no shortage of this raw material. The city was built on the slopes of seven hills and, while residents were historically forbidden from living in the basin, a number of poor communities have sprouted in the valley as rural-urban migration has skyrocketed. Every year, these communities are flooded when torrential rains run down the hills and collect on the valley floor. The plastic menace has only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis – the canals that are supposed to guide excess water to the ocean are instead choking in plastic waste. “There is plastic everywhere in my neighbourhood,” says Modeste, one of the Ndao Hanavao participants. “It blocks the canals and causes flooding. Wherever there is a canal, there is plastic. I would ban it if I could.”
None of what Polyfloss is doing would be possible without the work of people like Razafinzahary, who are at the heart of the way in which plastic is recycled internationally, and who witness how the global plastics market is evolving. And Razafinzahary notes that these people are struggling to keep up with the pace at which plastic is being produced. “The amount of garbage has increased a lot,” she says of the three years she has spent sorting through Antananarivo’s refuse. “For the people who want to buy, there’s a lot of bottles.” In her own home, about 20 full guni are stacked high along one wall, even though she has already sold enough to meet her financial needs for the day. The pace at which plastic is being produced is quickly overwhelming simple frontline processes.
But Madagascar finds itself in a strange place. It is not yet producing enough plastic waste for industrial-scale recycling as is done in China or in Malaysia, but it is producing enough to create a localised environmental disaster. This is a context in which projects like Polyfloss can make the biggest difference. “We are not trying to build an industrial system of recycling,” says De Visscher. “At the moment we have to consider ourselves craftspeople of plastic, not industrial processors.” The goal is that, eventually, Madagascar’s craftspeople will see Polyfloss as a meaningful alternative to the natural fibres that are being depleted at astronomical rates and the raw plastic that only feeds into the garbage problem.
While tinkering continues at the Polyfloss factory, in January 2015 the Malagasy government banned single-use plastic bags. City residents, including the Ndao Hanavao participants, responded with ambivalence. “I wasn’t happy about the plastic ban because we use plastic a lot on a daily basis,” says Alfa, one of the volunteers who passionately believes that the Polyfloss project should grow and spread, in a sentiment shared by all the other project participants. And therein lies the challenge. Even amongst the converted, addiction to plastics is much easier to identify than to cure.